Future of Learning

Will blended learning survive Deborah Gist’s departure as Rhode Island education chief?

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Rhode Island’s top public school official is the lone finalist for a job leading the school district in her hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma – a job that could becomes hers as early as this week.

Education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist’s departure would force Rhode Island to search for new leadership just as it has begun an ambitious plan to become the first state in the country to implement technology-assisted lessons in every public school.

Gist will be the only candidate Monday night when the Tulsa school board is expected to meet to consider its next step. The other finalist, Millard House II, withdrew his application for superintendent last week. The board could decide to interview others, and a teachers’ union in Tulsa is urging it do so, but the board had already narrowed its choices to Gist and House.

Whatever happens in Tulsa, the question of leadership now looms large in Rhode Island, where extensive work is underway to blend technology into the state’s classrooms.

Highlander Charter School in Providence, Rhode Island

Gist, who has been in her current job for almost six years and whose contract runs until June 30, did not say how much longer she expects to serve the public school system of the nation’s smallest state. But she said she believed that Rhode Island’s work with new classroom technology would not falter.

“It is something that is deeply owned by people within the state who are carrying it out,” Gist said in an interview Friday with The Hechinger Report. “I am completely confident that work will continue whether I am still here in Rhode Island or not.”

Related: Q & A with Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist: Our goal is to be the first state to fully blend technology into all schools

Earlier this month, the state board of education in Rhode Island took no action to renew Gist’s contract, leading to speculation that her departure was imminent. Some educators worry that the next leader might not share Gist’s zeal for making the transition to blended learning.

Deborah Gist (Photo by Frank Curran)

“If we get a Luddite as the commissioner of education, I can’t say that will happen,” said Gara Field, principal of Pleasant View Elementary School a traditional public school in Providence. “We need someone who is forward thinking. And it’s not just about the technology. It’s about learning, and using it to give students what they need.”

Gist, a Tulsa native, was a teacher in Florida and Texas earlier in her career. In 2004, she accepted a job as an administrative officer in the District of Columbia public school system, and she rose through the ranks to become D.C.’s state superintendent of schools. She was appointed education commissioner in Rhode Island in 2009.

Gist said that her decision to pursue the job in Tulsa she was motivated by a desire to serve the community where she grew up.

“They reached out to me. It’s my hometown,” Gist said. “It was difficult to make that step. I am so excited about everything that is happening in Rhode Island.”

The growth of blended learning in Rhode Island originated with teachers and local leaders, Gist pointed out, and that organic growth is the reason the initiative will outlast her, she said.

Related: Rhode Island teachers trying out blended learning — but without high stakes pressure

“I think the biggest challenge is making sure we don’t just use technology to replace the tools we currently have,” Gist said. “Smartboards can’t just be a fancy chalk board and tablets can’t be just fancy paper. The technology has to be for more fundamental changes.”

Highlander Charter School in Providence, Rhode Island

Finding a leader as tech-savvy as Gist will be difficult, said Shawn Rubin, the director of blended learning at the Highlander Institute, a nonprofit educational consulting, research and development organization.

“There are not a lot of state-level commissioners of education who even know how to log into Twitter, let alone run their own Twitter chats,” Rubin said Sunday in an email. “Hopefully, Rhode Island’s state leaders understand that we are on a path forward in regard to blended learning, and that we need a leader who understands the complexities of online and face-to-face instruction.”

Gist’s opinions on blended learning are considerably less controversial than some of the reforms earlier in her tenure in Rhode Island. In 2013, the teachers union released a poll indicating 85 percent of the union members did not support Gist.

Three years earlier Gist had agreed with the Central Falls, R.I., superintendent’s decision to fire an entire teaching staff, a method suggested as a way to turn the tide in schools with low test scores. She wasn’t alone. The controversial move was also supported by President Obama, who made his views public. At the time many states, including Rhode Island, competed for grants from a federal program that advised sweeping staff changes in schools with dismal performance on academic achievement tests.

Gist is one of four remaining state leaders affiliated with Chiefs for Change, a nonprofit education reform advocacy group that originated with Gov. Jeb Bush, a Florida Republican who has expressed interest in running for president in 2016. A spokesman for Chiefs for Change said in an email: “We’re obviously following Gist’s opportunities but don’t foresee any changes to her status as a Chiefs member.”

In the interview Friday, Gist would not speculate on whether or not blended learning would be a priority in Tulsa. She said her first move, if she takes the job, would be to meet with people there to learn their opinions. And right now, like everyone else, she awaits a decision from the Tulsa school board.

“I am just waiting until Monday,” she said. “I am interested to see what happens next.”

This story was written by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about blended learning.

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